To Lead by Obeying: Authoritarianism in Bolivia’s Coca Growers’ Unions

Dr.Thomas Grisaffi


Department of Geography, University of Reading

Bolivia’s ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has its roots in the Chapare coca growers’ unions. In line with its international obligations, the MAS government has had to restrict coca and cocaine production, activities that represent the coca growers’ main sources of income. For the coca growers, this constitutes a moral betrayal. This is because local conceptions of democracy are rooted in the principle that leadership should remain collective, deferential, and directly accountable: leaders must lead by obeying. The coca growers’ growing disillusionment with the MAS and their shift from a language of solidarity to one of dictatorship shows that authoritarianism is not an essential feature of a particular system or people  – but rather has to be understood as the result of a negotiated process between government and grassroots movements. As such it provides important perspectives on the anthropology of the state by ethnographically capturing processes of localised state formation and their precarious forms of legitimacy.

Thursday 13 June 2019, 18:30 start
Institute of the Americas, Room 103, 51 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PN
Complimentary entrance for Institute of the Americas staff and students
Tickets, including refreshments: non-members £6, members £5, students (with ID) £3
To book, email:

Trained as an anthropologist Thomas works on topics including coca production and its global commodity chain, indigenous social movements, alternative development in drug crop producing zones and democracy. His book with Duke University Press, titled “Coca Yes, Cocaine No” (2019), is an ethnography of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), as it transformed from an agricultural union, criminalised as a result of U.S. – led drug war policies, into Bolivia’s ruling party.

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